Inflammation and Ayurveda
Meghan Hays Ayurveda email@example.com Ayurveda Salt Lake City
Inflammation has been a buzz word and popular topic lately, especially in relationship to the COVID pandemic, an aging baby-boomer population, and an uptick in the diagnosis of autoimmune disorders.
So, first let’s answer the question:
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is an essential part of the regeneration and healing process in the body. Inflammation is actually a beneficial process that keeps up healthy. Inflammation as one job: to wake up the immune system and stem cells. It says, “Hey, something is wrong! We need to either wake up the healing system, the immune system, or both.” Which systems become activated depends upon the illness or injury. Once the healing is done or your illness has run its course, the anti-inflammatory system activates and shuts the process down to get you back to normal.
Problems come in when this system doesn’t shut off. This sets us up for a myriad of health problems; in fact, chronic low-level inflammation is the underlying cause of weight gain, early development of various diseases, and acceleration of the aging process. It’s estimated that about 60 percent (that’s over half!) of American live with an inflammation-related chronic condition, such as Type 2 Diabetes and autoimmune disorders, like Hashitmoto’s Thyroiditis, which is the leading cause of hypothyroidism.
And when you start out with high levels of inflammation, it’s a vicious cycle. Take, for example, obesity: the adipose, or connective, tissue in the body produces its own inflammatory proteins. So then the fat cells, residing in the adipose tissue, sense the extra inflammatory proteins, and this induces them to make more…which not only causes more inflammation, but can also cause even more weight gain.
Often, by the time the inflammation causes a real health problem, it’s been going on for a long time and doing loads of damage behind the scenes, AND, quite often, we’ve been ignoring the subtle warning signs that the body has been trying to give us: skin redness, swelling, join pain, and digestive problems, which Ayurveda would tell us is the first indication that there is something wrong – fix your digestion, heal your entire body). But most people take a pill, or some Pepto, or get on a prescription, which just masks the symptoms so that the inflammation can continue to go unchecked and wreak havoc.
But not to fret! There are SO MANY WAYS to immediately reduce your inflammation and take charge of your health. Some are obvious and some are more subtle. They include (and we’ll go over these in more detail and how they affect inflammation): stop smoking, moderate your alcohol consumption (no more than one drink a day for women), eat more plants, don’t overeat, get at least 7 hours of sleep each night, exercise most days of the week, and reduce stress through purposeful breathing exercises, mindfulness, and meditation daily. It’s all the stuff we work on in an Ayurvedic health and healing plan. Small changes each day have PROFOUND results…when done consistently. That’s truly the key: creating daily habits that you can stick with everyday.
So let’s talk a little more about the inflammatory process.
What triggers inflammation?
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) classifies inflammation as your immune system’s response to an “irritant” – which could be an everyday injury like a cut, sprain, or strain, to a serious infection, and everything in between. Some of the common symptoms of inflammation are redness, heat, pain, swelling, and loss of function…all the things that come up around a simple ankle sprain to a major infection.
One of the most common inflammation triggers is infection from a virus or bacteria. You feel miserable when you get the flu for 2 reasons: your respiratory symptoms come from the flu virus itself, like runny nose, cough, and shortness of breath, but your muscle aches and fever are from the inflammatory response. They’re actually a good sign that your body is doing its job of fighting the infection. Here’s what’s going on behind the scenes:
-When acute inflammation (your body’s immediate and natural response to an injury or infection) happens, your immune system starts producing cells and hormones it needs to heal, so some of those cells dilate or expand your blood vessels to allow for more blood and immune system cells to get to the affected area. So this can cause some general “achiness.”
-Fever is also part of the inflammatory response in that a higher body temperature creates an inhospitable environment for pathogens—they can’t survive at even a degree or two higher than our normal body temperature. This, in turn, can affect other body processes in that urination, elimination, and sweating are a way for the body to release heat, so you might urinate more frequently, suffer from some loose stool or diarrhea as the body moves food through the system more quickly, and you might sweat in an attempt to allow the skin to cool off as the sweat evaporates. This is why it’s a BAD idea to take fever reducers, even at high fevers of up to 103*; it disrupts the body’s natural healing process and takes longer to heal. A better use of your energy would be to fast, according to Ayurveda, so that your body can devote energy to this natural inflammatory, or healing, process, instead of having to digest and deal with food. Staying hydrated, however, is key, so consuming natural electrolyte drinks, like water with a little sea salt, lemon, and maple syrup (vs. Gatorade or Powerade, which is full of sugar) is best.
-If you have an injury, you will notice other symptoms like swelling, redness, and pain at the local sight of the cut, sprain, or break. Your body responds to injury by sending molecules like white blood cells and platelets, which aggravate the injured area and draw in other chemicals, to start the repair process.
So these processes are great, healing, and will stop on their own (or should stop on their own), when the healing or repair has occurred. The problems come in when this process doesn’t stop, is too powerful, or targets the wrong place at the wrong time.
So let’s talk about when inflammation is “bad.”
1)Infection: When the immune system stays active for too long or too strongly, something called a “cytokine” storm occurs. This is when the body is overwhelmed by an infection, and the immune system works too hard to protect itself, resulting in an overproduction of inflammatory proteins called cytokines, which can result in multi-organ shutdown. We saw this in COVID-19 patients as a result of other infections, autoimmune conditions, or other diseases.
2)Autoimmune disorders: Normally, our body produces cytokines in an orderly fashion, and everyone knows where they need to go. If the body is overwhelmed with danger, however, inflammation can become systemic (all over the body), and could even cause death. In other instances, too much inflammation can occur when there’s no infection at all, and this is the case with autoimmune disease. We’re not actually sure why this happens, but autoimmune diseases are characterized by an overactive immune system which mistakenly attacks healthy tissues. These disease often result in inflammation and, sometimes, irreversible damage of organs, muscles, joints, or other parts of the body.
3)Aging: Unfortunately, increased inflammation is a “normal” part of the aging process (often called “inflammaging”). As our immune systems decline with age, our protective (“good”) inflammation declines as well, which could trigger “bad” inflammation in that, if you can’t handle everyday irritants, injuries, and infections, the ongoing inflammatory response won’t turn off, resulting in an increase in health problems…which also cause more inflammation.
4)Diet and Lifestyle: Too little sleep, poor quality diet, and/or sedentary lifestyle / not enough exercise can case “oxidative stress.” This is the situation that occurs when there’s an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in the body. This triggers the immune system to respond with inflammation. The problem is that there’s no specific disease or injury to respond to, so that body ends up targeting normal cells. Then the body has to repair cells its actually damaging, which causes more inflammation. The results are subtle but can include muscle and joint pain, fatigue and insomnia, weight loss or weight gain, depression and anxiety, digestive issues, and frequent infections.
So let’s talk about weight and inflammation b/c they are related.
Here’s one way inflammation can cause your weight to fluctuate. Low-grade, chronic inflammation can cause fluid from your blood vessels to seep into your tissues, which then manifests as “water retention” and “weight gain.” If you don’t drink a lot of liquid (or alcohol) before bed, and always have to wake up in the middle of the night to pee b/c your bladder is full, your body is releasing inflammation while you sleep and, therefore, this excess fluid that builds up during your day. If this is you, begin to improve your diet and reduce your stress, and this will stop happening. I think it’s a good, natural indicator of how much low-grade inflammation you have.
Inflammation also sets you up for weight gain in that it affects your insulin and blood sugar responses. Remember when we talked about fat cells producing more inflammatory chemicals? And remember that cytokines are a type of inflammatory protein? Fat cells in people with Type 2 diabetes actually produce higher levels of these cytokines; cytokines activate certain proteins that suppress your insulin response. So if your body isn’t responding to insulin, which is what tells your body to uptake glucose, or blood sugar, after you eat, your body will produce more insulin and more insulin (b/c it sees that you still have high levels of sugar in your blood). This, in turn, raises your blood pressure, makes you unnecessarily hungry, and makes you gain even more weight…eventually leading to pancreas and liver problems—not to mention the complications of diabetes to your eyes and extremities.
There’s also a direct relationship between stress and insulin in that, when you are stressed all the time, your body is always producing cortisol (the hormone that helps you get ready to run from a perceived threat). When you have more cortisol in your system, your body suppresses insulin so that you have more sugar, or glucose, in your blood (so that you have the energy to run from that danger your body thinks is always right around the corner when you’re chronically stressed). Having high levels of blood sugar also leads to Type 2 diabetes, which then leads to more inflammation through the extra fat cells and cytokine they producing. High levels of blood sugar also cause damage to all of your organs over time.
Inflammation also leads to a decrease in leptin, the hormone that tells you you’ve had enough to eat, so this also contributes to more weight gain, and in turn, more inflammation. Fun, huh?
Couple that with the possibility that you’re one of the many people who suffer from inflammation of the thyroid, the organ that regulates our metabolism, and this could compound the problem by eventually causing the organ to shut down and stop working altogether. This is a topic for another time (considering it for October or November), but suffice it to say, our diet is the place to start, and COMPLETELY REVERSE, inflammation.
There are new studies everyday proving that our gut health (also called the microbiome, which is the name for the trillions of organisms living in your digestive tract that control just about every bodily process and affect every gene we have)…proving that our gut health is the link between humans and disease manifestation. Science is proving what Ayurveda has said for thousands of years: you ARE what you eat; therefore, all health (or disease) begins in the digestive tract. (Learn more about the 5 elements, or foundational principles of Ayurveda here!)
So our “standard American Diet” (SAD) and lifestyle are huge culprits. They cause this “bad” inflammation as well, which then leads to type 2 diabetes, obesity, cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer's just to name a few. These are all diseases that can be directly attributed to lifestyle choices. Sure genetics come into play, but over 99% of inherited diseases are non-determinant. This means that just because you inherited a propensity for the development of a disease, doesn’t mean you will actually develop it. In other words, your diet and lifestyle choices turn on or off your genes. YOU HAVE THE POWER TO DETERMINE YOUR HEALTH (OR DISEASE). This is great news and also scary news for some b/c, more often than not, we don’t want to take ownership over our health. Sometimes it’s easier to be a victim and blame our genetics than take ownership of how we got there. And there’s no shame or blame in owning up to the lifestyle and choices that brought you were you are; there’s opportunity to CHANGE. You can absolutely your health into your hands and reverse what’s going on. I’ve heard someone put it this way, “If genes load the gun, your environment pulls the trigger.”
So here are the big inflammatory foods that you should first work to eliminate:
-Processed foods (anything with more than 4-5 ingredients on the label or anything you don’t recognize as food)
-Sugar and sugar-filled foods, like soda, candy, pastries, and cereals
-Anything with “partially hydrogenated oil” or trans fats
-More than one drink a day for women and 2 for men (the higher the drinks per day, the higher the inflammatory markers go)
-And if you smoke, now’s the time to quit in that it spikes inflammation
All of these foods led to higher inflammatory and autoimmune diseases as well as higher inflammatory markers
Once you reduce these inflammatory foods, make sure to introduce more anti-inflammatory foods:
-Cabbage (If cabbage gives you gas, eat it as sauerkraut or kimchi – have a tablespoon or two on the side of your meals each day)
-High fiber foods (oatmeal – great delivery vehicle for blueberries and apples – whole grain bread – look for low sugar – other whole grains like bulgur, quinoa – actually a seed – and barley, as well as fruits and veggies)
-Micronutrients such as Vitamin D (salmon, canned tuna, and mushrooms – I supplement – good to have tested – levels higher than 50ng/dL associated with lower risks of all cancers and greater neuroprotective benefits) and magnesium (nuts, legumes, avocado, and spinach – I also supplement)
-Fish oil (I supplement) and turmeric (use on food or take capsules or you can order here from Banyan Botanicals – I can make for you – 1-4 caps twice daily depending on symptoms – I increase dosage around times I need more healing), cinnamon (natural blood sugar regulator), and ginger (natural digestive and anti-inflammatory)
All of these foods lower inflammatory markers.
*BTW: Inflammatory markers in blood testing, which you can ask your dr. for are:
- CRP (C-reactive protein)
- ESR (Erythrocyte Sedimentation Rate)
- PV (Plasma Viscosity) – not as widely used
*Raised levels of these are indications of inflammation in the body.
So eating these foods in the right way is also a BIG part of the picture:
1)Eliminate distractions and CHEW YOUR FOOD. This is a game-changer for most people with digestive problems. If you’re about to swallow your food, stop for a split second and ask yourself, “If I spit this out, would I recognize it (aside from obvious colors)?” If the answer is yes, you need to keep chewing. There’s no magic number of times to chew; just make sure it’s a consistent texture.
2)Leave at least 3 hours between meals before you eat again (if you’re genuinely hungry, eat a snack or have your meal at that time, even if it’s less than 3 hours, but DO tune into that). By leaving yourself time between meals, you allow your body to break down and assimilate all the nutrients properly, and by actually getting hungry, you allow your liver an opportunity to take stored fat and turn it into fuel. (Talk about 3 digestive stages and raw rice analogy.)
3)Similarly, everyone should be giving themselves a natural intermittent fasting window of about 12 hours at the least. You should be done with dinner at least 3 hours before you go to bed. If you’re aiming for a 10pm bedtime, you’ll want to be done eating dinner by 7pm; likewise, dinner should be a smaller meal, while lunch the largest to reflect your metabolic levels at those times of day (metabolism is higher in the middle of the day, just like the sun). This gives your liver plenty of opportunity to get rid of toxins and for your body to release any inflammation built up over the course of the day—to go from fight-or-flight mode to rest-and-digest. If you go to sleep with good on your stomach, the liver has to, instead, assist with digesting it. This is one of the easiest ways to use fasting (a natural way to decrease inflammation) every day. (including your mini-fast between meals).
Losing weight generally lowers inflammation and decreases load on joints, which are a common place to experience inflammation symptoms for many people. So reducing portions, giving yourself proper fasting windows, and staying active / moving purposefully for 30 minutes 5 days a week (doesn’t have to be 30 minutes all at once) are all key. People who exercise the most (but not the most intensely b/c that can cause chronic inflammation if you’re always damaging your body without enough recovery time) have the lowest levels of inflammation markers.
You don’t have to run a marathon or go to Cross Fit. 30 minutes of moderate walking, dancing, calisthenics, gardening…anything that gets your heart rate up, warms your core body temperature, and makes you just break a sweat before you cool down is all you need. Stressing the body and causing a little, temporary inflammation is good; you come back stronger once you’re repaired. This also strengthens the muscles around and, again, takes load off the joints that may have been damaged from chronic inflammation, whether you suffer from osteoarthritis or an autoimmune disease like rheumatoid arthritis.
Exercise also reduces stress, which let’s face it, is a reason many of us overeat, gain weight, get sick and/or have chronic levels of inflammation. We live in a world in which we have “unnatural” stressors. We don’t have to worry about where we get our food or even cooking or preparing it most of the time; we don’t have to worry about the next tribe over invading our village or whether we will get attacked by a lion when we’re out hunting for dinner. The human body adapted over millennia to deal with these stressors by creating a stress response, or an inflammatory response, and then going away once the danger went away.
Today, we have constant stressors from media, which shows us war in other countries, natural disasters all over the world, and violent crime…we are bombarded with worries about dramas we can’t control. Not to mention that many of our work environments are overly demanding, ask too much of us, and refuse to take into account other responsibilities we might have, like family, children, or even our own well-being. Many of us are in chronic fight-or-flight mode, so it’s no wonder that inflammation and auto-immune disorders are on the rise.
We have to intervene with stress-reducing practices, like connecting with other humans through regular social activities and meaningful interaction (which is a huge component and a common thread among all the communities of the world that live the longest) AND daily mindfulness practices like breathing and meditation. Even 5 minutes a day, everyday, can have PROFOUND healing effects and can lower inflammation greatly by giving your immune system a (good) boost, clearing your mind to focus on something other than daily drama, and by initiating the rest-and-digest (parasympathetic nervous system response, which is the opposite of fight-or-flight / sympathetic nervous system). You have to develop a daily practice that gets your body to this state while you’re awake to truly have a meaningful impact on your stress: 20 minutes of yoga nidra, 5 to 10 rounds of breathing (alternate nostril or inhale/retain/exhale), and/or 5-10 minutes of meditation in which you focus your mind on your breath, a mantra, or a guide.
You also help calm and ground the nervous system and reduce stress when you eat at the same time, sleep and work at the same times, and do your mindfulness and exercise practices at the same times each day. Your body knows what’s coming and can relax. This greatly reduces stress and, therefore, inflammation.
I have a feeling you already know and are working on all of these things, so I hope this gives you more reasons to continue to work on these things. Inflammation is fascinating: on the one hand it’s useful; when it goes on for too long, it can be deadly; the most important thing that I want you to take away from this is that it’s completely reversible. Start with one thing: diet, sleep, exercise, or mindfulness practices. Do that for one month regularly; make it a real habit; a real part of your lifestyle; then move on to something else. Let me know if I can support you in any way by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Meghan Hays Ayurveda email@example.com Ayurveda Salt Lake City
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